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Newbie Discouraged But Persistent---Help!

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I am a 55 year-old who is taking Fine Arts classes at the local community college.  I have worked through Drawing, Painting, 2-D, and 3-D classes.  I have been told by my instructors I have a modest talent.  This semester I took a Methods and Materials class, which is basically Ceramics -100.  The teacher has 4 classes going on at one time in one room: Ceramics, 1,2, and Studio.  AND my class, which consists of me.

I am supposed to complete the same projects as the other classes.  They are all 3 hours long, 3 times/week.  My class is 2 hours, 2X/week.

I was very excited to work with clay.  Then the excitement waned.

My pinch pots were uneven.  

My coiled pots too tight.

My englobed slab-roller box had sides that caved in and cracks at the joints.

My projects looked like Kindergarten pieces compared to the other's....20 year-old students.

Ah, now to start throwing on the wheel!

Centering is not that bad!  I can tell when I'm off and it's right.  I am very pleased.  Finally!  Something done right.

Making a cylinder.  I can't seem to use my knuckle to pull the clay upward.  I get a thin base which breaks off almost every time. I try time and time again.  The teacher spends about 10 minutes with me each class.  When I can't pull the clay up for my cylinder, she becomes very exasperated.  

I find that if I use my fingertips, I do better feeling the clay.  I make a couple of nice bowls, but no cylinder.

She sits down next to me and we center, open...she is using her knuckle and I am using my fingertips.  I still can't get higher than about 4 inches.  My base is too thin and the piece shears off.  I ask her what I am doing wrong, and she tells me she doesn't know and can't help me because I don't use her technique.

 

It's Spring Break.  I found a Pottery that will rent me a wheel.  I spend three hours practicing, still with minimal success.  The owner comes by and gives me advice and some pointers.  I pull a 7 inch cylinder, wobbly, but still recognizable.  I am elated!  I plan to spend as many hours as I can to get to a comfort zone with clay and pull the cylinders.  The ottery will Bisque fire my pieces, too.

My teacher mentioned Glazes come next.  I am bewildered.  I have *4* books I purchased from Amazon, all of which are not helpful.

 

I'm sorry for the lengthy intro.

My questions:  Can anyone tell me what I am doing wrong trying to pull up a piece with my fingertips?  I try not to dig in my fingers, but I still get that too-thin base that spins off.

How wet is too wet, and how dry is too dry?

Glazes..does anyone know a book/DVD/You tube explanation so I can know what I am supposed to do?

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Hard to teach from afar, but, possibly, you are keeping your fingertips in that one spot for too long and thinning the clay there rather than continuing up the wall bringing the clay with you.  .  Sometimes to stop a habit, you have to do the opposite, think 'leave a fat place here so the pot can stand up', and see what happens.  There is a balance to the combination of finger pressure, wheel speed and how fast you move your fingers up.   You have to find that.  If you have the same problem every time, look to what part of that combo is not working.  Too slow a wheel speed for the contact is the same as too long a contact in one place.  Hope this helps. 

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Welcome to the forums and world of clay.

 

Don't get frustrated. Practice will overcome any issues, you are having. I've been teaching ceramics for ten years, and I'm still learning and getting better.

 

In regards to your problem, try applying a little less pressure, with your pulls, and go slightly faster. I always tell my students, it's better to apply slight pressure and move too quickly, because the clay just doesn't get thinned. If you do the opposite, you end up with thin spots that are weak, collapse or tear off.

 

Like with many things, on the wheel, it's something you have to get a feel for. It will come with time and practice.

 

Also, in regards to your earlier projects, the slab box probably caved, because the sides were stood up, before they were dry enough, causing them to sag. The cracks could be due to sharp angles left in the corners. I always run a coil along the seam, and smooth it in. Cracks can also be a result of the clay drying too quickly. Just some things you learn along the way.

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It's great that you're experiencing what everyone else has gone through when learning how to make pinch pots, coiled pots, slab pieces and throwing and you are able to see the imperfections and understand that you need to improve on those initial designs. This is how we learn. Many people don't even see that and get stuck in a rut. It takes practice and sometimes doesn't matter if you're using fingers or knuckles or anything else. You'll eventually find your own way that's comfortable for you. Clay lover is right about the balance about pressure, wheel speed and moving your fingers up. Many beginners don't let the wheel spin enough when pulling their fingers up. Let the clay turn many times as you pull up slowly. There are hundreds of videos on you tube which you can watch and learn from and find the technique and timing. Good luck.

 

Paul

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Couple of general observations . . .

 

There are multiple ways of throwing/centering/pulling up . . . some use a knuckle, some use what is called the "bear claw" technique, some use their fingers. Your instructor seems to know only her way and can't relate to students who need to use other approaches. She's likely comfortable with her way of throwing but is not able to put herself in your shoes.

 

As a class of "one", she is giving you ten minutes and then giving her other classes the rest of her attention. Running four classes simultaneously means no student/class is getting her full attention. Recipe for disaster and frustration.

 

You seem to be running a sprint through all the forms . . . not getting enough time to move beyond the most rudimentary of instruction and doing one exercise to "check the box" on the syllabus. Pinch, coil, slab -- especially boxes, are not forms you can master in one class. You get better by making the forms over and over again. Clay is not a sprint; it is a life-long marathon/ultra-marathon.

 

As for cylinders, when pulling with just fingertips, I believe there is a tendency to compress the clay too much, leading to thinner walls that are not as stable -- especially if you throw "wet", which is typical for beginners. Try reducing the amount of water used when throwing. And, keep both hands in contact so you get a better sense of the clay thickness as you pull up. Avoid multiple pulls -- each pull stresses the wall and thins/compresses it; more than four pulls for a 6 to 8 inch cylinder is too many. Slow down the wheel speed; there is a tendency to increase speed to pull up; use a medium to slow speed.

 

There are good videos on Youtube for throwing (and a lot of bad ones). Good basic throwing with good discussions of what they are doing: Simon Leach, Bill Van Gilder.

 

Glazes -- not sure what you'll get, as glaze chemistry is a semester class and a life-time of learning. For an intro type class, it may be glaze techniques, not formulating/mixing. Leach and Van Gilder have some good glazing videos, too. Hsinchen Lin has good instructional videos on glazing. Most books focus on mixing and making, few show how to glaze an item (more visual than textual).

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I agree that the 4 in 1 classroom sounds really unfortunate. If you were in a classroom with other beginner throwers, you would see that everyone is going through the same stages as you, and the instructor would be more focused on those early stages. I don't want to cast blame on the instructor or the college, this might be the best they can do with their limited resources.

 

It sounds like you have already made good progress working on your own during Spring break. My advice is to look for a class that is meant for new throwers. If that is not available in your area, then continue with your college classes, but lower your expectations for what they can do for you, and take on an independent approach for learning (like you've already started by renting a wheel over spring break). Youtube has a lot of good video lessons, and you can always come to this forum with questions.

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hooray for you!  isn't it fun to work with clay?  even if you feel inadequate right now, that will pass when you develop some skills.  remember that pianists do not start at Carnegie Hall while the whole orchestra is tuning up.   you are only at the finger-exercises stage, long way to go.

 

you may be doing exactly what i was doing on the wheel.  someone finally watched what i was doing and explained that the fingers of each hand should be at a different horizontal level, not the same level.  the clay can then be forced upward and guided outward at the same time.  what a revelation that was!!

 

if your questions about glazing involve application, it is great if you can visit someone on their glazing day.  if it is the chemistry, there is a way to overcome most of the scariness by knowing that many potters use only a few glazes.  if you are interested in making pots that should be sufficient for what you like.  

 

if you want to be the inventor of glazes, you need a lot of help from folks not like me.

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.

My pinch pots were uneven.  

My coiled pots too tight.

My englobed slab-roller box had sides that caved in and cracks at the joints.

 

My questions:  Can anyone tell me what I am doing wrong trying to pull up a piece with my fingertips?  I try not to dig in my fingers, but I still get that too-thin base that spins off.

How wet is too wet, and how dry is too dry?

 

 

 

Sounds like your pottery looks exactly like my early pottery - so don't worry bout that.

How wet or dry clay should be is like a personal preference - however, I think softer clay is easier to use and

teach with.  The way I test all the clay planned for use is: Can it be wedged?  If it too stiff/dry to wedge, you

can't throw with  it...so I sit all the stiff clay on the wedging board next to a cup of water and with a wire tool

slice clay off the top in 1/4 inches and add water, and when thats done, smack it a couple of times and turn

it on its side and do the thin slice and dip the fingers in the water and rub across the surface.  Then I

try wedging again... What I'm looking for is when the wire tool will slice thru the clay without the clay falling

over.  You can do this at home and save studio time for throwing.

     Fingers or knuckles pull - For 99% I use fingers to pull with but any clay over 10 lbs. I use knuckles to save

the joints in the fingers.  The wheel speed, pressure, and spiral up is suppose to mesh and come together for

better results.  Its hard to describe pressure.

     Wobbly cylinders are usually the result of arms not braced enough.  They should be tucked in and braced

against the rib cage.  The knees should be pressing against the wheel frame, (so when your forearms are

resting on the thighs, they aren't flopping around.)  When everything is braced, only the hinge in the elbow

bends for the elevation of the clay. 

    Don't save everything, and cut your losses early.  You need practice throwing, not trying to salvage something

you won't like anyway.  And cut some of the vessels in half to look at the profile.  A profile tells you what you'er

doing right as well as wrong.

    What country are you in?   How many are centers around?  Some potters teach others in their studios.

 When you watch "youtubes" notice the body positions, arms, legs, knees, hands (at 3 oclock or 4 o'clock?)

What clay Mfg. and type are you using?

Good luck,

Alabama

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I am also going to suggest spending time watching YouTube videos of throwing ... A lot of these are really well done so you can watch the hand placement as often as you need to. Also you will see many different ways to do it and realize there is NO one right way.

 

Brace yourself for the glaze chemistry area as she will likely be just as 'helpful'. .... But once again there are some great videos of potters talking about glaze chemistry.

 

We all learn inn our own way and these videos might help you.

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4 in 1, what a Circus! I did two in one for years, Ceramics 1 & 2's together, but would never think to do more. I do find it is great for you to get to do something that so many never did in HS or in college years when younger-explore art. As far as your experience with Ceramics, take a breather. It can be overwhelming, and quite addictive. Big thing is to take it in small steps, never being too critical of your work. My first class in Ceramics was in college, Summer. I did not keep a thing until the last week of making, only concentrating on process. Others all around me were having all sorts of pots from the wheel and handbuilding, but I wanted to learn the techniques before keeping. Last week, I threw several pieces ending up with 13 I think. They glazed well, and turned out well enough for me to know Ceramcis 2 was next. Never looked back.

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May i suggest the problem with your pulls is that you are pulling too much clay in one pull. I first learned pulling with the pointer finger knuckle but had problems getting my cylinder not to flare and moved to finger tip pulls and had more control of the pressure i put on the clay. At the bottom of your pull when you make the little lump that will be the clay you pull up don't make such a big lump to pull up. Let the wheel make one revolution before you move your hand up the wall of the clay in a smooth motion. It is like a dance and the clay your partner, you have to time your pulls and the speed of the rotations so they move in time with each other.

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Previous post from others cover all the suggested corrections. I can't add to that. Your salvation my be in the fact you have found a place to practice. If the Pottery will rent you a wheel for an eight week period, or more, then you can practice without the stress of trying to have a result to be graded. Practice is key. Throw one pound balls of clay into cylinders over and over. Your 50th will look better than your first. You will fail more than you succeed, but you will learn how the clay reacts to each touch. And finally, slow down and enjoy the process. With each pull of a cylinder wall you will be learning...and learning is the fun part.

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well, if you are still with us, does it help to know that everyone here has gone through the same learning curve?   your situation is unique in that your instructor does not seem to provide what we think is help but you can get around that.   there is a book for beginners written back in about 1972 by Charles Counts called "Pottery Workshop".  it can be bought in paperback for a few dollars.  if you will start at the beginning and follow the steps through short cylinder, etc to lidded jar at the end, you will have at least more information than you do at present.  the advantage of a book is that you can keep it at your wheel and keep referring to it as you need.  i know that youtube is very popular and that books seem to be out of favor but a few dollars spent is not gone, just invested in your future.  read the same page over and over if you need to.

 

classes also help but  the emphasis cannot be on making a product but learning a skill.  as alabama says, take a wire and cut vertically down to the wheelhead from the top of your next effort.  you are trying for even thickness all through the pot.  when you see it, you can be satisfied with your skill level.

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Thank you all SO much.  You have given me great tips......and helped me to dispel that "I'll never be able to do it right" feeling.  It is intimidating to be around students who can produce nice pieces when I am 30 years older and can't get my pinch pot 'right'.  You have all helped me realize there are many definitions of 'right'.  Describing YEARS of practice vs 3 weeks also helps me keep this situation in perspective.  I LIKE working with clay and have an unfortunate tendency to want to make perfect works the first time around.  The practice this week will be a great start to getting extra hours in.  When I was painting with oils, I watched as many YouTube videos as I could find.  I don't know why that didn't occur to me now.  But I have a couple hours today I can devote to watching and will head back to the pottery tomorrow with more experience...even if it is vicarious.

As for my teacher....I do think she is mystified because she does not have several ways to throw tucked in her belt.  She probably CAN'T help me...so, I'll have to help myself!!!

 

I will post some of my attempts for you all to chuckle over!!!!   :-P

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In all things clay, depend on your sense of touch, not your eyes. When you get the feel for the clay, then worry about the aesthetics of the form. I often teach students(as many others here do) by blind folding, or turning out the lights, or having them shut their eyes as they center, open up and throw. Try it especially on your pinch pots, and when throwing.

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It's been three years and I am still not sure on the best technique to throw. I find some days I use one and others another.

 

Great idea to watch videos and see what sort of moves other people are using.

 

If you have a camera, try videoing yourself and watching it back. Good way to learn what you are actually doing compared to what you think you are doing in the moment.

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You mentioned getting a few bowls but having no luck with cylinders. When you are trying to pull a straight cylinder, it's a good idea to have the hand on the outside of the pot just below the hand on the inside. I would watch as many different potters as you can pull a cylinder. Try different things and keep only the bits that work for you. And your progress sounds pretty normal :). It's all practice, and it does come.

If it's any consolation, the only person who was worse at clay than I was in my Ceramics Studio 1 failed out at Christmas. I kept at it.

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In throwing cylinders, they should look more like your third pic, but upside down until shaped. So make it with a throwing motion that actually moves gradually inward, to counter the centrifugal force pushing the top wider. More of a gradual cone shape going up.

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Thanks you for showing us your first few pots.  I did not chuckle, but I did smile, since I recognized my first few pots in your pictures!

They are absolutely normal early pieces.  Every person that can throw a 20 " cylinder, started out like you ,hoping to be successful at pulling up  2 lbs. of clay . 

Please do yourself a favor in the long run, and weight out a dozen balls all the same amount, and try for the same form over and over.  the last should look taller and straighter than the first.  Don't be shy about putting a stiff straight rib on the outside of a piece to get it back into shape some before you continue with the next pull.  That also helps to take some of the slop off so it doesn't get so weak.  Cut everything in half lengthwise so you can see the wall shape, all your 'sins' will be revealed therein. :-) .

 

Make more pots!

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When I was at the pottery yesterday, something happened that I had hoped would happen...the owner just couldn't help himself and came to watch me since I was the only one there.  He gave me many tips and watch my attempts each time.  One of the most important observations he gave me while watching me is that I have slender hands and long fingers and thumb.  I dig in because i can't get my hands on the clay unless I bend my fingers too much and I pinch too hard.  He helped me learn how to use my long fingers and thumb to work to my advantage.  I plan to spend several hours there today if my back can take it!

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Chiming in here with a recommendation to watch Tim See youtube videos as well. He has a great sense of humor and gives pretty darn good explanations of what he's doing and why. Sometimes, understanding the "why" of a thing is more important than actually being able to do it.  I struggled with the same issues you are now experiencing. Through repeated viewings of others and how they worked their hands, I finally figured it out. That and in having a great instructor watching over my shoulder.

 

I'm glad the studio owner had a chance to watch you at the wheel. Nothing beats having an experienced potter at your side to show you where things are going wrong as well as right. Keep at it. Winners never quit and quitters never win! ;)

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Keep on truckin'.  I went to art school as an overwhelmed single mom on welfare, and majored in crafts/ceramics when I was well into my 30's. After graduating an intensive, excellent degree program, I immediately went on to a radically different field and was not able to return to clay until less than a year ago...and I am now 67. Although I absolutely "know better" and was great at it back in the day, currently my bowls are collapsing, my cylinders looking wavy, and as I am prone to depression, I am having to vigorously battle the "give it up, what's the use" demon. As you surely know by now, nothing you are experiencing is out of the ordinary. It takes practice, discipline, patience, time, mentors, GOOD instructors (some are awful), a support(ive) group, and chocolate--i suggest a fine dark chocolate.  

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